What Happened When I Had An Unlimited Food Budget

burritos and hands

Last year I had the opportunity to travel to the UK for work. I made a couple of different trips, and for the first month my work put me up in a flat and paid for every meal. It was a great opportunity to learn what my habits would be like if money was less of a factor in my decisions. Would I order the expensive steak every night? Would I ever tire of the Market Choice fish or the Chef’s Special?

The bathhouse at Bath with statues
A weekend trip to Bath

A Frugal Family

For background: I grew up in a coupon-friendly family. We had two coupon books– one would live in the house, and the other would live in the car. We never went out to eat without a coupon from one of those books. Between the four of us, our bill averaged $20. We would split two entrées, and if we were out for pizza we might even order one Coke to share. I was thirteen-years-old the first time I ordered my own entrée. I was at a friend’s birthday party and watched in awe as each person got their own dish. With no forks dipping in to try my salad, I ended up with half of my plate left over.

The Travel Policy

On this work trip, I could spend $15 on breakfast, $20 for lunch, and $40 for dinner, a total of $75 or £58. Some companies provide a ‘per diem’ where you get a lump sum to spend each day and you get to keep whatever you don’t spend. Mine did not work like that; instead, the allowance reset each day and you did not get to keep what you did not spend. If you underspent on groceries one day, you could not have a fabulous feast the next.

Here I was with this unique opportunity to see if my habits would change at all if money was removed from my decision making. By habit, my eyes would track to the least expensive thing on the menu, and it took some time getting used to the idea that I could now afford to get anything I wanted.

Pizza piled high with spinach
One of my first meals in England

The Daily Routine

For breakfast, I usually made eggs, beans, and toast. I would grab a cappuccino every morning on the way to the train. Then for lunch I would head over to a local café for a sandwich (otherwise known as a toastie). After work, I would take the train home, rest for a bit, then get ready to go out for dinner. I tried out every restaurant in town. There were three Indian restaurants, seven different pubs, six Italian restaurants, three French restaurants, two pizza places, one Lebanese kitchen, and a sushi spot. The first week I ate with my team, but after they all flew home I would walk to a restaurant with my trusty Kindle and ask for a table for one. Although eating alone took some getting used to, I explored menu items I would never usually order and savored my quiet time reading.

The Uncomfortable Truth

According to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, you eat 200 calories more per meal eating out compared to eating at home. Gary Kuntz, former chef at the four-star restaurant Lespinasse, told the New York Post, “If you knew how much butter goes into a risotto dish, you’d probably never eat it again. And puff pastry! It’s almost equal amounts of butter and flour.”

Sugar, salt, and butter are added in appalling amounts– measures I would never dare to add at home. My friend used to be famous for his delicious homemade cookies, but when I realized that they took two sticks of butter to make, I struggled to eat any of them. Another time we made homemade jam and the piles and piles of sugar put me off from eating jam for the rest of the year. Similarly, learning the unhealthy methods of restaurant cooking was a wake-up call.

Uh oh…
food graphic sodium intake
Double uh oh.

A study published by JAMA Internal Medicine analyzed the meals served at 26 chain sit-down restaurants in Canada. They found that a single meal of breakfast, lunch, or dinner constituted almost a full day’s worth of calories, fat, and sodium. Although I did not know the data at the time, I could tell that eating out every day did not feel very healthy.

I would try to counter this by ordering small: a side salad and an appetizer for my dinner. Before I started eating, I would portion out the amount I wanted to eat and left the rest to take home. Luckily my commute involved a lot of walking.

Lessons Learned

A large ice cream sundae
Okay, maybe I got dessert once or twice…

One of the most surprising things was what I didn’t want. I figured that with a budget double what my family usually spent for dinner, I would splash out for an appetizer, that expensive menu item, a drink, and maybe even a dessert. However, when it was an option– I didn’t want it. If I got an appetizer I would be too full for a main course. I don’t like to drink anything other than water (although England did convert me into a tea drinker). By the time the dessert menu landed on the table, I was ready to head home.

As for the main course– it was fun to order the seafood linguine over the plain marinara. For a little more money, I got to explore a few options I might not have ordered otherwise. However, it slowly dawned on me that “premium” meals did not add much more value for me than their cheaper counterparts. I didn’t want to eat a steak every night (surprise!) and sometimes I preferred a cheeky Nando’s to a fancy sit down. Finally, the novelty of eating out fizzled out. What used to be a once-in-a-while treat was now just an everyday expectation. I started to shift to making my own food at home to save time and to eat fresher and healthier.

Budgetless Grocery Shopping

I opted for cooking more at home with quality ingredients. When I was living in England on my own dime, I spent an average of $146 (£114) per month on groceries. When work footed the bill, I could spend up to $75 (£58), or half my monthly budget in one day. This meant that my grocery options were nearly limitless. If I wanted to buy my favorite brand of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (Sofa So Good: caramel ice cream with a salted caramel swirl, chocolate brownies, and chocolate cookies) for triple the price than I would normally pay, it could go in the cart. I could buy nice cuts of meat, the best cheeses, and all the dark chocolate Digestive biscuits my heart could desire. Sales schmales, who needs them?!

Scones with clotted cream and homemade jam
Scones with clotted cream and homemade jam

Yet after just a couple trips to the store, I had enough treats to last me the rest of the month. I’ll be honest, it takes me two weeks to eat one chocolate bar. I nibble on a single square, leave it in the drawer for when a craving hits in a couple days, and save the rest for later. Aside from treats, my grocery trips did not look much different as I generally cook up lots of veggies and rice. Even with a limitless budget, I found myself buying similar foods and spending similar amounts.

Final Takeaway

My expectation was that a high food allowance would make me happier. I would worry less about cost or value and simply order what I want. It turns out that when I stripped away any need to be frugal, my satisfaction with eating out stayed the same. This demonstrates the phenomenal ability of the human mind to quickly adapt to a situation. We tend to think that more money, fame, or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream will make us happier, but we generally return to the same baseline of happiness. This proved to me that I was never living a ‘deprived’ lifestyle with my inherent frugality. Besides the tragedy of forgoing a couple of fancy cheeses and that magical orange-fizzy drink from M&S, I do not need an astronomical budget to buy the foods to keep me happy and healthy.

What about you? What would you do with an unlimited food budget? Would your habits change or stay the same? Let me know in the comments below!

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  1. I would definitely be buying the fancy cheeses given these kind of funds, though I’m sure I’d reach ‘peak cheese’ after only a few days. Sounds like an interesting experiment to have tried. It’s empowering to realise that your own default level of frugal spending on food is actually what serves your happiness best.

    1. The funny thing is that cheese was actually surprisingly affordable in England, so I could buy a ton of it without registering a blip in my budget. It was definitely empowering to realise that the default wasn’t deprivation. I am pleased with the experiment– rather than missing out on all those meals out, I now appreciate home cooking even more!

  2. I would love to feel free to buy the most expensive thing on the menu once in a while but I can see how it would fail to feel special quickly. I must admit that a recent business trip paid for by the company felt ridiculously easy because everything was taken care of. I think I would grow soft if I always traveled like that.
    I was born in the UK so I enjoyed your post and the UK references (M & S, Nandos etc). I didn’t know they now have Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

    1. Yes once in a while it’s nice to splash out, and if you have a bit of budge in the budget it can be nice for a special occasion because you appreciate it even more! Yes, Sofa So Good is unfortunately a British-only flavour so I will have to start campaigning to bring it here!

  3. This is so interesting! Cheese is pricey here, so I’ve wondered if I should ever have it since I am still paying off a lot of debt. But I have adjusted to not eating out at all easily, in part because it’s easier to cook meals I like at home than to find their Western counterparts (and I eat Chinese food free for lunch at work every day).

    1. How much would a block of cheddar be? When I was in Asia (Nepal) cheese was a scarce resource. It was a dark time.

      Yum, free lunch every day sounds great! How difficult is it to cook up Western meals at home? I find that sometimes it’s tricky to get the right ingredients.

  4. I hear ya on the cost and dietary concerns with dining out. I lived in Italy for two years and gained probably close to 20lbs in that time. There is literally a pitcher of wine in the center of the table at all times! What’s not to love!? Lol. When I returned home I reverted to normal thank goodness.

    Even though dining out seems to be the easy button, my wife and I really enjoy cooking at home. It brings us together a bit more, contributes more to our long term happiness and well….saves us loads of cash.

    Nice post! I love the pics of the food. I want to stiff one of those sconds in my mouth! Lol

    1. Living in Italy is the dream. I don’t blame you for putting on some pounds! Sometimes the easy button is not the best button 🙂 It sounds like you and your wife have found the joy in cooking at home, love it! And trust me, they were mere crumbs in minutes.

  5. Really interesting post, and I can sort of relate (though only in the limited context of being able to order delivery food to be charged to the client or firm when I worked late in biglaw – usually the maximum budget is ~$35-$40 for dinner that way at NYC firms, and keeping in mind that a first-year associate bills $450/hour, it’s a negligible line item for the client). After a short while, the novelty of being able to order almost anything one wants really fades, most people would rather just go home earlier and eat what one normally eats even if one has to pay for it instead of the cost going to the client. In my case though, that’s generally just takeout from a cheaper restaurant in my home neighborhood.

    1. That makes a lot of sense. Eventually going home simply has a higher value than eating whatever we want. I think it takes a while for people just out of school to cultivate that value of their own time, but it happens! It definitely took me a while before I was like, “I’m just sitting in these restaurants waiting around most of the time.” It wasn’t bad, but some nights I wanted to do more than just sit and read.

  6. Thanks for linking that study! You really opened my eyes! We generally prefer eating at home than out but I never realized the start differences in nutritional facts. Great post!

  7. Hello there, I read with attention because I faced this phenomenon myself when I was an expatriate. In short I earned much more per month but besides an occasional splurge, I did not change my habits much, all in all I was spending approximately the same as before enjoying the local delicacies and cook at home most of the time. I looked around on the internet but did not find a name for the phenomenon of not wanting to have more even though you have more so thanks for the study 🙂

    1. It’s cool to hear from someone else who had a similar experience. The term for wanting more even though you have enough is hedonistic adaptation, but I think the phenomenon of not wanting more is called contentment 🙂

  8. I would definitely get the gauc at Chipotle. And I’d splurge on organic foods a bit more. And get fresh meats instead of frozen. But it’s not like I can automatically intake *more* food just because I have a bigger food budget. And I don’t like eating out so much because I can’t typically get exactly what I want (…broccoli. I typically just want broccoli and instead they always do some sort of “veggie blend” as a side which is never that great).

    1. Aw man I was going to mention guac at Chipotle in this post and then forgot! I would definitely get guac, every time. It would be my downfall.

      I agree, you can’t actually eat *more*, though you could eat better. The scale to better isn’t too steep though if you continue to not need very much or simply eat a lot of veggies.

  9. Great post. I’ve definitely run similar unofficial ‘experiments’ during my travels for work, but I never really sat down and looked at the results. I’ve come to the same conclusions as you though- spending extra doesn’t necessarily result in more satisfaction.

    I had a trip to Taiwan and Japan last year, where I ate seafood, sushi and fancy beef like an animal for 2 weeks. The monetary cost actually wasn’t so bad, but my stomach revolted with about 3 days left on the trip. I learned my lesson- moderation is key, especially with raw beef!

    1. Sometimes it takes overindulgence to find moderation! Or at least to realize we are happy with our own moderation after all. Seafood, sushi and fancy beef — yum. Now I want to go to Taiwan/Japan.

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